When the Man Booker Prize was opened last year by allowing US authors to compete for the first time in its 46-year history, author Susan Hill summed up the real issue: “Either way, pity the poor judges. They buckle under the strain as it is.”
A C Grayling and his panel of five judges read 154 books before choosing the final six: Joshua Ferris, Richard Flanagan, Karen Joy Fowler, Howard Jacobson, Neel Mukherjee, Ali Smith.
This might be the best of all years in which to be on the Booker shortlist, with media attention trained on the prize amid continuing debates over the effect of the American invasion. Fears that US bestsellers would dominate at the expense of the UK and the rest of the former Commonwealth were slightly alleviated with the surprise omission of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch from the long list. Many are equally surprised at the absence of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which went AWOL in the competition for the last six places.
Mukherjee’s presence on the shortlist will keep anxious Indian nationalists happy. No one knows why Indians remain so fascinated by the Booker, the Nobel and the Guinness Book of Records, but readers unmoved by other prizes – the IMPAC, the Cervantes, the Folio, the Pulitzer – get remarkably emotional about marking our Booker attendance. Mukherjee gives Indian nationalists a hat-trick of sorts to celebrate – Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis was on the Booker shortlist in 2012, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands made the cut in 2012.
Mukherjee’s first novel, Past Continuous, made him famous among a relatively small set of readers, of whom many were writers themselves. It was a close contender for the first DSC Prize, and won the Crossword along with Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Past Continuous was ambitious, playing off themes of alienation raised in Satyajit Ray’s/Tagore’s Ghare Baire, and though it had its flaws, Mukherjee’s gift for spinning political and emotional violence into gripping fiction was evident.
The Lives of Others is a strong contender in a strong field. “Ma, I feel exhausted with consuming, with taking and grabbing and using. I am so bloated that I feel I cannot breathe any more. I am leaving to find some air, some place where I shall be able to purge myself, push back against the life given me and make my own,” the protagonist, Supratik, writes before he plunges into a revolutionary world where his privileged upbringing makes him a blundering, dangerous misfit. Ghosh called this “a passionate, angry book”, one that was successful because it forced the reader to engage with the writer’s themes, ideas and characters. Anita Desai said Mukherjee’s take on the bloodied Naxal revolution – he maps the same terrain as Lahiri did in The Lowlands, but with a decapitating axe rather than a surgeon’s scalpel as his preferred instrument – was “ferocious, unsparing and brutally honest”.
But the other contenders on the shortlist are not short on craft, either. Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves tells the story of an American family with a secret and a highly unusual sibling – it is crisp, funny, and heartbreaking. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North started with his exploration of family history – his father had been one of the hundreds of thousands conscripted by the Japanese to build the Death Railway during World War II.
Howard Jacobson, shortlisted in a previous year, is the bookies’ favourite with his novel J, set in a dystopian UK where agents try to manipulate collective consciousness to erase memories of a masscare. Ali Smith’s How To Be Both is a popular favourite, and features two narrators – a teenage girl, and an Italian rennaissance artist. Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again At A Decent Hour features a successful New York dentist, and lurches between high seriousness and some slapstick. It’s anyone’s guess whether literature’s version of the Ashes will go to one of the two Americans on the list, or whether the Commonwealth will prevail this year.